Until mid-September, the half-million migrants who had been marching northwards into central Europe seemed like the Old World equivalent of Hurricane Sandy survivors. Families uprooted by the war in Syria were seeking safety, according to this view of things. It was sad to see little girls sleeping by the side of the road, but inspiring to see European volunteers, with their clipboards and their bags of snacks, their water bottles and Port-a-Potties, showing such compassion and logistical expertise.
German chancellor Angela Merkel never seemed prouder. Her announcement in mid-August that Germany could accept 800,000 refugees—vastly more than anyone had assumed possible—gave momentum to the mass migration. This was the new Europe, one not afraid of showing brotherly love to its Muslim neighbors. “To be honest,” Merkel said, “if we reach the point where we need to apologize for lending a helping hand in time of need, well, that’s not my country any more.” Americans will recognize this rhetorical device as the Barack Obama who-we-are-as-a-people technique, which implicitly threatens anyone who disagrees with the leader with ostracism from the national family.
But on September 15, this picture changed. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, the easternmost outpost of Europe’s so-called Schengen zone, sought to restore order to his country’s border checkpoints, which had been overrun. New laws required newcomers to file asylum applications, and introduced criminal penalties for those who entered the country unlawfully. Almost immediately, groups of migrants rioted outside the town of Röszke and were driven back only with the help of water cannons. Gone were the little girls—because, however photogenic little girls may be, the lion’s share of the travelers are young men, and now they were heaving rocks at the authorities and showing up on YouTube videos shouting Allahu Akbar. Gone, too, were the stories of Syria—because only a fifth of those coming to Germany are from Syria in the first place. The rest are from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and other places, and they are following a route on which large-scale smuggling operations have carried all sorts of migrants for months and even years.
Two visions of Europe’s place in the world are clashing. For Merkel, the migration looks like a charitable opportunity. For Orbán, it looks like a portable intifada. In mid-September, it was Orbán’s assumptions that were being borne out.
Merkel’s invitation to 800,000 of the Muslim world’s tempest-tossed won her accolades around the Middle East. Arabic social media called her “the compassionate mother”—not an epithet often applied to her last winter, when she was wringing every last obol out of a Greek government that had been bamboozled into a draconian debt-servicing program by European officials. Germany seldom gets credit for its big heart on the world stage, and its citizens reveled in the adulation. The ZDF television chain held a “Germany Helps” telethon. Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler, enthused that migrants who were ready to pull up stakes and leave behind everything familiar were “exactly the kind of people we’re looking for at Mercedes and everywhere in our country.” Although Merkel got 100 percent of the credit for this generosity, other countries would share the price for the immigrants she lured. Since the signing of the Schengen agreements in 1995, there has been free movement within most of the European Union. Orbán and the leaders of Poland and Slovakia announced themselves unwilling to take extra migrants, adding that they preferred that the ones they took be Christian.
European leaders have generally mocked Orbán for his provincialism, then denounced him for his immorality, and then pursued his policies to the letter:
n In Austria, the Social Democratic premier Werner Faymann likened Orbán to the Nazis. Faymann leads a coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, who joined forces two years ago to keep the hardline anti-immigrant Freedom party (FPÖ) out of power. Now the FPÖ appears to have a shot at winning the municipal elections in Vienna in early October, and Faymann has imposed his own border controls.
n In Croatia, a new EU country not yet in the Schengen zone, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic has long professed herself shocked at certain of Orbán’s policies. When Orbán introduced controls at the Hungarian-Serbian border, she offered to let the migrants pass on an alternative route leading through Slovenia. That idea lasted barely a day. As we went to press on September 17, her interior minister said Croatia had reached capacity and could accept no more refugees. Grabar-Kitarovic herself had put the army on alert. (Slovenia closed its own border with Hungary shortly thereafter.)
n But the greatest reversal was in Germany. The Christian Social Union’s leader (and Merkel’s ally) Horst Seehofer had called her invitation a “mistake that will keep Germany busy for a long, long time.” Even the left-wing government of Baden-Württemberg had been urging a three-month limit on asylum stays. Merkel carried on regardless. But on September 12 alone, 10,000 migrants walked out of the Munich train station, and the city was overwhelmed. Merkel’s interior minister Thomas de Maizière announced that Germany was closing its border. (And here we should stress that the borders in question were not the EU’s external borders but internal borders with other EU countries, which have been open for two decades.) As generally happens, Orbán’s vindication only deepened his adversaries’ resentment. Even after closing his own country’s borders, de Maizière was threatening to cut off Hungary’s EU funds should Orbán not agree to a larger refugee quota.
It was one of the bitterest episodes of German-Hungarian squabbling over human rights since 2002, when Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize for literature. Hungarians resented it when Germans boasted of Kertész’s Berlin domicile as a sign of their country’s moral progress. Hungarians took this bragging for an assertion that their own country had not made such progress. Kertész, though, has made an appearance in the latest migrant controversy, and now it is Hungarians who want to cite him. In The Last Refuge, Kertész’s diaries of 2001-2009 (not translated into English), he wrote a few remarks on Muslim migration that have in recent weeks become staples of political websites, both moderate and extremist. “I would talk,” Kertész wrote,
about how the Muslims are invading, occupying—to put it bluntly, destroying—Europe, and about Europe’s attitude towards that. I would speak, too, about suicidal liberalism and dumb democracy, the kind of democracy that envisions giving chimpanzees the right to vote. [Note: Kertész is referring here to an actual proposal of animal-rights advocates, not likening any group of voters to animals.] This story always ends the same way: Civilization reaches a stage of overripeness where it can no longer defend itself and doesn’t even particularly care to, where, for reasons that are hard to understand, it comes to idolize its own enemies. And, which is worse, where none of this can be said openly.
Orbán’s decision to enforce border controls changed everything, although one should note that Orbán has not acted in a rash or undemocratic way—the legal changes at the border were announced well in advance, and his changes to state of emergency laws were passed through parliament, not asserted by decree. One can, if one wishes, fault Orbán for irrealism, to the extent he believes Hungary’s maintenance of its traditional culture and demography is consistent with EU membership. The EU aims to do away with such considerations.
But it was Merkel’s rash invitation that forced Orbán’s hand. Merkel may wind up a kind of twenty-first-century equivalent of Günter Schabowski, the East German functionary who, at a press conference in 1989, misread a list of instructions he had been given and incited the stampede of East Germans who broke through the Berlin Wall. One can blame Merkel for setting millions of migrants on the road to Europe to redeem promises that Europe cannot possibly keep.
The big danger ever since this migration got underway is that it would get stopped up somewhere. The day after Germany closed its border with Austria, there were 20,000 migrants stuck in the Austrian villages of Nickelsdorf and Heiligenkreuz. And the further south you go, the fewer resources residents have to give the travelers a welcome. The migrants are largely young men from rough, tough parts of the Muslim world. There is now a queue of them that stretches all the way east to Bangladesh and beyond, and deep down into sub-Saharan Africa. People have sold cattle, abandoned houses, robbed employers, left wives and children, and burned all sorts of bridges to come. There are now hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of them. Many are war-hardened. They are looking for money, food, and female companionship, and they are convinced that Europeans are gullible sissies. This is where Frau Merkel’s Willkommenskultur has led: With the impending closure of the Croatian border, hundreds of thousands of young Muslim men are about to hit a brick wall in Serbia. Serbia!